Getting’ your man
Johnny Depp is center stage as John Dillinger in semi-biopic Depression-era crimewave
Michael Mann’s latest is a kind of gangster movie fantasia—a lavishly stylized mixture of violent crime pic and historical romance. It’s also a sprawling, amped-up vehicle for Johnny Depp—a circumstance that looms larger in the advance publicity than in the film itself.
Depp’s rendition of John Dillinger, erstwhile “Public Enemy No. 1,” provides the predominant figure in this darkly romantic outlaw ballad. But Public Enemies is at least partly based on Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction account of the national cops-and-robbers fireworks played out in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and so it also makes a pass at multicharacter drama via Dillinger’s contemporaries among crime fighters (J. Edgar Hoover and Melvin Purvis in particular) and storied outlaws (Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, etc.).
Christian Bale plays the Purvis role with an admirably understated intensity, and for a while it looks as though Purvis’ story will share equal screen time with Dillinger’s. But the late emerging centrality of Dillinger’s fiercely loyal girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) eventually tips that apparent balance in Dillinger’s direction.
Mann’s movie is of course mostly bang-bang and not much kiss-kiss, but the means by which it gives Cotillard’s Frechette the final emotional say may be its most distinctive and original move. Indeed, for all the film’s stoked-up attention to violence and bravado, a surprising amount of its dramatic energy ends up getting invested in what amounts to a passionate tale of doomed and separated lovers.
Depp is not the best movie Dillinger I’ve seen (that honor still belongs to Warren Oates in John Milius’ 1973 shoot-’em-up biopic), but he and Bale are both very effective in terms of the gloomily fatalistic romanticism that seems to prevail here. And Cotillard takes full fierce bloom in her emblematic moments near the end.
Billy Crudup’s modestly dignified caricature of Hoover is the most conspicuous instance of the film’s puzzling misfires with a supporting cast that seems both impressive and under-used. Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi and Leelee Sobieski all appear as noted characters in the Dillinger saga, but none gets anything more than the barest hint of a cameo moment out of it. Branka Katic is routinely effective as the Chicago madam who helps Purvis close in for the kill, and Stephen Graham seems to be doing a bad parody of Mickey Rooney in the Baby Face Nelson role.